When people plan their trips to Orlando, Florida, their itineraries typically only include the theme parks. Many do not realize that this area offers more than Disney, Sea World and Universal. There are a slew of attractions in the Central Florida region worth visiting, and many of them are just a short car or bus trip from the Orlando area.
These five daytrips are among the best:
The Space Center: A Cosmic Experience
Located less than 40 miles east of downtown Orlando is the hub of the United State's space program: the Kennedy Space Center. This is where the space shuttles have lifted off from since 1981, and millions and millions have traveled here to witness these space crafts take astronauts into orbit. Though the shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2010, as NASA gets to work on building the next generation of space vehicles, many of the other cosmic attractions will remain, such as KSC Visitor Complex, offering IMAX presentations, exhibits and bus tours of NASA's facilities, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Cocoa Beach: Beaches, Shopping or Las Vegas-Style Gambling
Less than an hour away, Cocoa Beach is the nearest beach to Orlando. While it attracts loads of locals and tourists, with six miles of shoreline, there is plenty of room for more. A short walk or drive from the beach there are shopping venues, like the famous, oceanfront Ron Jon surf store, as well as restaurants. Want to try your luck at a slot machine or blackjack table? Port Canaveral, just to the north of Cocoa Beach, is home to two Las Vegas-style cruise ships, Sun Cruz Casino and Las Vegas Cruise Lines, each with at least two daily sailings.
Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge: Florida's Wild Side
Also less than an hour's drive is the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, a federally managed, 140,000-acre refuge containing over 1,500 species of animals and plants. Edged by the Space Center to the north and Cape Canaveral National Seashore to the east, it is one of the few attractions in Florida that costs nothing to explore. Besides being a mecca for bird watchers, the refuge is the perfect place to view alligators in their natural habitat. The best way to spot one or a few is by cruising the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive. Remember, stick to the speed limit and do not feed the gators (Florida law prohibits it). After walking one of the trails and stopping in at the visitor center, go a little further east for a stroll on Playa Linda Beach. Its south end provides a good view of the shuttle launch pads.
Tarpon Springs: A Little Bit of Greece in Central Florida
Located on the Gulf Coast, fewer than 80 miles from Orlando, this quaint city, with its lanes lined with tavernas, bakeries and shops, has the feel of an Aegean island and for good reason. A sponge fishing hub in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Greek immigrants, a lot of them expert divers from Greek islands, settled here. Check out the sponge dock area and the Historical Antique District and then end the day with a traditional Greek meal.
St. Augustine: America's Oldest City
About a two-hour's drive from metro Orlando, an excursion to America's oldest city is a must. Founded in1565 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine is rich in history : having been occupied by Spain and then Britain before America took control : and historical places to experience. The top attraction is Castillo de San Marcos, a fortress built by the Spanish in the 15th century, and plan to spend no fewer than two hours here. The Old City area is packed with shops, eateries and other historical sites, including the Oldest Wooden School House and the Old City Gates.
So, when planning your Orlando vacation, set aside time for at least one daytrip. You will not be sorry. You will go home knowing a lot more about the Sunshine State : because, as the daytrips featured here prove, there is a lot more to it than Mickey Mouse, Shamu and rollercoasters.
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